|You Can't Have My Love||Decca 9-29140|
|I Gotta Know||Rockin' With Wanda|
|Let's Have A Party||Wanda Jackson|
|Stupid Cupid||Right Or Wrong|
|Hard Headed Woman||There's A Party Goin' On|
|Funnel Of Love||Capitol 4553|
|Right Or Wrong||Right Or Wrong|
|You Bug Me Bad||Capitol 4833|
|My Big Iron Skillet||Wanda Jackson Country|
|Two Hands||Unfinished Business|
Contributor: Calvin Rydbom
The Growl in her voice. The rocking sound of her guitar. The way she just moved on stage, instead of just standing there like a girl singer should. Her sound was one a lot of people felt belonged to the boys club in the late 1950s. But a lady named Wanda Jackson made it hers.
Once upon of time Wanda Jackson was known both as the “Queen of Rockabilly” and “The First Lady of Rockabilly”. They were titles both earned while spending a short time being one of the folks who took the first steps into what we would now think of as rock ‘n’ roll. It made her viewed as pretty risqué for her time, which is how women who want to be as aggressive as men with their music have always been labeled.
She was one of the, if not the, first female rockabilly stars. And really one of the first rock and rollers when you get down to it, Early on she would mix both country music with rockabilly in her repertoire, often releasing songs from the different genres on A- and B-sides of her singles. But then from about 1956 to 1961 she just cut loose and the amazing period this toppermost will (mostly) be about happened. When rockabilly started to decline in the mid 1960s she focused on her country music stylings and kept her career going strong for another decade, albeit with less interesting songs. Jackson has found herself with renewed popularity over the past decade as well as being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence in 2009. Today’s toppermost will be a lot more about those early influence years, and the last few, than her country period.
Wanda Jackson started winning talent contests while just a kid, and had her own local radio show in Oklahoma by the age of 13. By the time she was 20 her songs started showing up on the Country Top 10. The first song was a duet with Billy Gray for Hank Thompson’s Band. After the song reached No.8 on the charts she approached Capitol Records, who released Thompson’s records and therefore her recent hit, about signing her as a solo act. She was told girls don’t sell records. The producer that told her that wound up producing some of her biggest hits over the next decade. I don’t know if that was good karma or bad for him, but it really seems like a lot of people in the music industry have no idea what the hell they are doing; Wanda went on to chart sixteen more times on the country charts, and three more times on the mainstream charts. It was Billy Gray’s only chart appearance.
Jackson was a cast member of the influential television show Ozark Jubilee from 1955 to 1960. More importantly for the evolution of her sound, she also toured on bills with Elvis Presley during this same period. Jackson dated Elvis for a short time, and she listened to his advice and coaching to move away from traditional country into rockabilly, and eventually into rock ‘n’ roll.
After swinging back into traditional country in the mid 1960s, there was also an extensive gospel period from the early 1970s to the mid 1980s.
In the late 1980s she did yet another turn back into rockabilly and the 2000s found her working with Elvis Costello, The Cramps, Jack White and Justin Townes Earle. She is touring still, in her late 70s, and is firmly established as one of the folks who started rock ‘n’ roll.
Jackson first hit the charts in 1954 with You Can’t Have My Love, which was billed as Wanda Jackson and Billy Gray (see above). It’s an odd song as it’s a straight ahead country number with Wanda doing all the singing with a minute or so interlude of Billy Gray where he at first hits on her and then gets mad at her that she doesn’t respond. It’s oh so odd. It’s twangy, it’s country, it certainly differs from the sound she would become identified with in the coming years. Still, it’s the first time most people heard her. And the voice, although not the growl and grit, and personality, are clearly there waiting to break out.
I Gotta Know was released as a single in 1956 and then appeared on the aptly named album Rockin’ with Wanda (1962). It veers back and forth between a traditional sappy country song from a female singer that quickly ratchets up into an out and out rocker, It’s almost a response song, with the two styles answering each other. Perhaps it’s even a satire of the love songs of the era, who knows. But it’s good. And it set her on the path that her talents really fit well into.
Everything seems to have come together at that point as she had a string of amazing songs over the next few years.
Let’s Have A Party started off with almost a Jerry Lee Lewis feel to it before Wanda’s growl jumps into the fray. While the first two songs on this are certainly good, this is the first one that showcases Wanda in the style that allowed her to put a stamp on mid twentieth century music. “Some people like to rock, some people like to roll/But movin’ and a-groovin’s gonna satisfy my soul”. Good stuff.
Stupid Cupid is another one that jumped out at me as different and so unique when compared to many of the female singers of the time. Listen to the difference between Connie Francis’ delivery and Wanda’s when they both sing “Stupid Cupid You’re a real mean guy/I’d like to clip your wings so you can’t fly/I’m in love and it’s a crying shame/and I know that you’re the one to blame.” Connie sounds a little plaintive to me, sad this is happening to her. Wanda is ticked, that was the difference between Wanda Jackson and so many other female vocalists of the era. No shrinking violet was Wanda. But Connie had the hit with the song.
My favorite song by Wanda may be Hard Headed Woman. Especially with the videos I’ve seen, and once in a live venue, where she says she wants to play a pretty love song and just launches into the rocker. I especially love that by this time she was playing some pretty mean guitar on her songs. I particularly like she isn’t the least bit apologetic that a Hard Headed Woman is a thorn in the side of a man. In fact she seems to be pretty damn proud of it.
Wanda’s signature growl was given a little time off, but not completely told to go home, in Funnel Of Love. I love the idea that we can’t escape the funnel of love, and no matter what we do, it’s goin to suck us down. She had come a long way from the girl who sang about wanting a ring in the mid 1950s.
1961’s Right Or Wrong signaled Wanda’s return back to country. Wanda herself said that the success of the song, a top ten country hit, made a lot of her rock ‘n’ roll fans desert her. But as she thought rockabilly was over I guess she was sort of OK with it. It’s classic country and nothing like the output of the past couple of years. No guitar solo, no Jerry Lee Lewis like piano, Simply country, and pretty good.
Her follow up song, In The Middle Of A Heartache, reached number six on the country charts and there wasnt a single thing about it that was rockabilly. She used a different singing style, and the guitar sounded oh so different. No blistering solo, so much more bland. Also there were strings. I’m not a fan of strings. When the orchestra does it sure, but not with Wanda.
You Bug Me Bad (1962) was almost a last gasp, but a good one as last gasps go. There was a bit more rock ‘n’ roll guitar than the recent previous country hits. I like it, as to me it indicates she really wouldn’t have minded rockin’ through the 1960s. But clearly the money was in the country music arena.
In 1964 she sneaked into the top 40 with a single off her album Wanda Jackson Sings Country Songs, and from 1964 to 1971 she charted in the top 40 of the country charts thirteen more times. Another great thing about Wanda is her albums clearly seemed to have indicated the style of music which you’d find on them.
For the most part I found the country music of this period, and the gospel music period interesting because of her voice, but a bit uninspired. With one exception. In 1969, on Wanda Jackson Country, she released My Big Iron Skillet. Which was considered a bit threatening in its day. Seems a female country singer telling her wayward man she was going kill him, and if he did survive tonight’s fight she was going to leave him anyway, was a bit over the top at the time. Too bad, it’s a fun song.
So skipping ahead forty years, Wanda Jackson returned to rockabilly with 2011’s Jack White produced The Party Ain’t Over and 2012’s Justin Townes Earle produced Unfinished Business. They were the first Wanda albums to chart since 1973, and made her the oldest women to ever have an album chart. It took the title from a 1966 Mae West release, which is neither here nor there really, but given a chance to work Mae West into something I was writing I had to go for it.
Two Hands from Unfinished Business isn’t up to par with her classic works. Her voice doesn’t have the same growl to it, but it’s still good to hear her working in the style she is most suited for. It swings a bit more than any of the stuff with Jack White, which I feel really didn’t do her justice. Delivering good swinging songs over sixty years into a career is all you can ask for really. It’s all you should at least.
This is Calvin’s 33rd Toppermost. His third book “Modern Images of Akron” was recently released by Arcadia Publishing. In it Calvin spends a good deal of pages covering the history of music in Akron with images and commentary on the Black Keys, Devo and Pretenders among others. He has also recently signed on to be the Archivist and Contributing Author for the Akron Sound Museum, which celebrates the history of Akron Music from the early 1960s to present. In the meantime he is working on his 4th book before starting a fifth on the history of Akron Music.